It’s Inauguration Day 2021 — two weeks after the Jan. 6 siege on the United States Capitol Building — and Rider University professor Mark Pearcy sits down and writes the following: “Dissent is foundational to a democratic society, and civic institutions like government, community, and schools are where citizens try to resolve the questions that provoke such dissent.”

Mark Pearcy

The editor for the online publication Teaching Social Studies, Pearcy continues his introduction to the publication’s Winter-Spring 2021 issue by saying that even after “a mob of insurrectionists — and there is no really no better word to describe them — tore through the U.S. Capitol building in an effort to stop democracy from functioning” that “dissent is essential for democracy to flourish” and “can’t be allowed to fester into repression; and we can’t allow demagoguery to blind us to the values we share.

“Similarly, as Americans, we should believe, unashamedly, in these democratic values, and keep faith in our democratic processes — and oppose any attempt to subvert them.”

Pearcy’s world is education: He is a former Florida high school teacher and now a professor in Rider’s Department of Teacher Education. So it is not surprising when he writes that “students need to know that such resolutions are difficult, and often unsatisfying, but are essential to the proper (and continuing) success of a republic. The premise of fascism — a submission to authoritarianism, the suppression of minority views, the silencing of dissent — is antithetical to both democracy and to the social studies classroom.”

During a recent telephone conversation Pearcy says public education can help citizens understand the workings of a democratic society and protect it from eruptions — such as the events on Jan. 6.

“The question we have all been asking over the past few months is ‘How can we teach about what is happening in, and to, our country?’ It is the prevailing issue of our profession. The social studies community needs to continue to support each other in finding the best ways to defend our democracy and to help students see its value.”

After all, he adds, a social studies education is a type of civic literacy that gives individuals the ability “to take part of trying to improve the communities you live though the civic process.”

However, problems develop when citizens lack the understanding of how the government functions, the United States Constitution, and the interpretation of rights and misconceptions and extreme ideas are exacerbated by what he calls a “troubling polarization.”

“The problem is that the Democratic Party has moved to the left, and the Republican Party has moved further toward the right and lost its mooring as a conservative body” he says, adding that tensions escalate with people in both parties labeling each other enemies.

Pearcy says the current political situation is also connected to party members existing more and more in “a closed echo chamber that is really dangerous.”

He points out that in the past both political parties could agree that a particular social situation was a problem — for example, poverty — and then offered differing policies on how to address it.

Today, he says, one political party may refute the existence of a problem completely, ignoring a social problem and creating divisions and tensions.

Pearcy says over the last five or six years, the social studies community has been asking itself, “How should we have done more (to foster dialogue and debate)? That questioning has grown since the election of 2020 and the rising up at the Capitol in January.”

However, he adds, it is difficult stuff for teachers “because parents call and complain,” and “what the political right wants from civic education is different from what people on the left want.”

He says another factor affecting New Jersey instruction is that the state has more than 580 school districts of vastly different populations and resources, so there is no mandated approach to the teaching social studies and civics.

Money — or lack thereof — is also a factor. As Pearcy notes, a study by Danielle Allen, a former Institute for Advanced Study professor and now director of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, reports taxpayers pay $54 per student for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) studies, yet pay only 5 cents for civics education.

“As teachers we need to be committed to American core values,” he says. “These are values worth defending and to celebrate.”

* * *

Supporting Pearcy’s vision is Nicholas Zolkiwsky, a Rider student whose 2021 Teaching Social Studies article “How Do We Teach Politics in a Society Where Political Affiliations Have Become Toxic?” illustrates the problems related to civics education and politics.

Nicholas Zolkiwsky

Zolkiwsky says when he was a fourth-grade student in 2008 his “teachers did not tell us where Senators McCain or Obama sided on certain issues or even a basic background of the parties they were affiliated with. Instead, we were all taught to like Obama because he was younger and was the more ‘favorable’ candidate among teachers at my elementary school.”

He says the same approach was taken in 2012 but changed in the 2016 presidential election when his teachers talked about where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stood on issues.

“While for the first time we were having open discussions about beliefs and the two major parties, it was undoubtedly one of the most toxic environments one could have ever imagined. Instead of listening to each other oftentimes I would find classmates getting into heated arguments, which were then followed by one person attacking the personal character of the other.

“Even as a 17-year-old I knew this was no way to hold political discussions. Where was the respect? Where were the listening skills? And most importantly, where was the maturity? The answer, nowhere to be found.”

Now in 2021 he asks, “How do we, as teachers, teach and create a healthy environment where students can learn and discuss politics when we live in a society that becomes toxic when these discussions arise?”

His answer is informed by other references and also by work beyond the classroom.

One is to provide lessons that help students and citizens explore the reliability of sources of information, media bias, and “fake news.”

As Zolkiwsky notes, “This is a perfect starting point as understanding biases will better help all students fully understand the concepts of politics and how differently media outlets portray a candidate/policy than a rivaling network. This also opens up the door to teach students the importance of fact-checking and doing their own research, which in the past few years has become so much more important than ever.”

The process also helps address the easy access to media and the increasing influence of social media on individuals who “will typically see a picture or a meme on Twitter or Instagram and assume it to be true. Not only will they outright believe it, but they won’t even go through the effort of reading up on the issue or using that additional information to form their own opinion.”

While his other points are directed specifically to classroom teachers — to inform parents that about the discussions and to remain neutral to issues and candidates — he brings up something applicable to all discussions: “Make sure that the students know that their opinions are their own opinions and they have the right to have them. This can be very empowering for students, especially those in high school who now find themselves in the ‘young adult’ category. By having their own free-formed opinions this helps them establish a sense of identity as to who they are and where their morals lie.”

Zolkiwsky sums up his argument by saying, “Our political climate in our nation today has never been as divisive as it has been over the past few years. But we as educators and even future parents must realize that if we want to change the toxic climate that is our political spheres, then we must lead the charge. Show our students it’s okay to disagree with others and that you can still be friends just because one person voted for one candidate and the other voted for the opposite candidate. The sooner we implement respect in our classrooms and when discussing politics with younger generations the more likely they will pass those traits down to their children.”

During an email exchange, the Flemington, New Jersey, raised Zolkiwsky, whose grandfather and parents are Rider alumni, says, “I wrote this article as part of an assignment for one of my education courses this past fall semester called ‘Teaching Social Studies in Secondary School.’

“I had always been interested in the fact that politics is often labeled as a ‘taboo’ topic to discuss with others. Oftentimes when people start to mention politics during a conversation you can instantly feel the atmosphere of the conversation start to change, and you worry that things will become tense or even hostile. I believe that it is possible to have discussions that involve politics, especially with people whom you don’t see eye-to-eye with, as long as a mutual understanding and respect is put forward. We often forget that people’s political opinions are nothing more than just that, their opinion, and that they are fully entitled to an opinion. I always tell people that ‘you don’t have to agree with my opinions; I just ask that you respect them.’ If we want our future generations to be able to have these respectful conversations with one another then we as parents and teachers have to show and teach them how to respect each other’s opinions.”